- You’re Not You
When characters with terminal illnesses appear in literature, they often demand that readers brace themselves for a tragedy that is ready-to-wear. For some, this may be the novel or short story's appeal; for the writer (and reader) of serious fiction, however, such illnesses present as many pitfalls as plotlines, producing melodrama, not tragedy. Yet Michelle Wildgen's debut novel, You're Not You, skillfully avoids these pitfalls when navigating the short-lived but intimate relationship between Bec, a twenty-something college student turned caregiver, and Kate, her wealthy, thirty-six-year-old patient in the advanced stages of ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). While Kate's ultimate demise is inevitable, You're Not You sustains its plot and develops its characters quite unpredictably.
The novel begins with its narrator, Bec, stagnating. A college student at the University of Wisconsin with a major that no longer interests her, Bec is also having an affair with a married professor. She has thus become a campus cliché. In an impulsive attempt to redeem herself, Bec answers Kate's husband, Evan's, ad seeking a caregiver. Yet no sooner does she get acquainted with her responsibilities to Kate than Evan leaves his wife. With Evan's sudden departure, Bec finds herself without a mediator to buffer her against Kate. And Kate, once an advertising executive, accomplished chef and skilled decorator, has suddenly found herself relying on an adrift coed for all of her needs, from the most practical and administrative to the most intimate. [End Page 158]
Initially Kate speaks somewhat inaudibly, until Bec begins to understand her patient through looks, gestures and the rhythm of Kate's words. Bec eventually becomes Kate's interpreter. But when playing this role on the phone with Kate's wayward husband, Bec inadvertently adds some editorial comment of her own. It is from this that the novel derives its title and the nature of Bec and Kate's relationship fully unfolds. As Bec narrates, "'This is me,' Kate said. She ignored Evan's voice and focused solely on me. I'd never had her look at me this way: no humor, no softening the blow. She let each word sink in and added: 'You're not you right now.'" Their lives could not be more diametrical. Bec, whose youthful, healthy body nevertheless houses an inauthentic life, contrasts sharply with Kate, who must continually reassert her authenticity in the face of her illness.
Wildgen handles Kate's body language impressively, in a prose style that remains clear and deceptively simple. Body language serves Kate's characterization well. One does not realize the extent to which Kate's gestures drive the novel until after she has died, when they suddenly disappear. But before this occurs, and before Bec may "find herself," she must first sublimate her sense of selfhood to her employer's more focused and vital self. It is only when she becomes Kate, so to speak, that Bec becomes Bec. Her loyalty to Kate is like that of a handmaid toward her nobler mistress.
It is to the author's credit that Wildgen does not end her novel with Bec becoming a career caretaker, as though Kate were merely the means for helping Bec find her life's path. The path Bec ultimately chooses rises organically, not consequently, from her encounter with Kate. You're Not You takes an unflinching look at the debilitating effects that ALS has on an unfinished life, but it also rehabilitates the life of its narrator in a manner the reader can feel is earned.